Deconstruction part 1

A couple weeks ago a woman I love and admire very much posted this article. I enjoy reading her thoughts as we occupy very different space on the political spectrum but I respect her process and recognize we start with very different core values. I was shocked and dismayed however, that this piece spoke to her and she saw it as a logical piece of work.

In order to work through my own response and provide a coherent rebuttal I have written this deconstruction.

The italics denote my analysis (also as a ‘trained persuader’) of how he is presenting his ‘case’ in a less-than-straightforward manner and is instead appealing to fear, manipulative tactics, and dog whistle politics to garner support. I have linked to the most obvious and relevant logical fallacies at the end of each for those more interested in arming themselves against lazy analysis and argumentation.

I have also included a more straightforward response, engaging directly with the points afterwards.

We have deep divisions in this country that must be resolved if we are to move forward. It is important that we be honest and straightforward when discussing them. Disagreement in itself is not bad, but how we present it, how we engage with it, and how we resolve it should be the focus of our democratic project if we are ever to ‘make America great again.’

 

 

SA: As a trained persuader, I’m seeing a dangerous situation forming that I assume is invisible to most of you.

He gives himself authority and then makes a statement implying that alternative analysis is because we are not as experienced or intelligent as him.

Logic Fallacy: appeal to authority: You said that because an authority thinks something, it must therefore be true. 

Response: I am also a trained persuader, and have spent a lot of time teaching others to persuade. Lesson number one is that every persuader should rely on one’s argument, logic, analysis, and evidence, not personal history or accolades.

 

 

SA: The setup is that during the presidential campaign Trump’s critics accused him of being Hitler(ish) and they were sure other citizens would see it too, thus preventing this alleged monster from taking office. They were wrong. The alleged monster took office.

Characterizing history as a setup is in itself a setup. This construct is a classic tool of projection, usually employed to manipulate or gaslight. By eliding these two sentences he implies ‘wrongness’ about two ideas when in fact we were only wrong about one.

 Logical Fallacy: composition/division: You assumed that one part of something has to be applied to all, or other, parts of it; or that the whole must apply to its parts. 

Response: I think he is a monster. I think someone who is sexually predatory and sees women as objects is not a good person. I think someone who uses disproportionate power to refuse payment to small businesses that employ others after the work has been completed to be lacking in morals. I think those are rational and reasonable beliefs based on history, evidence and empirically-based facts. I also think he won according to the rules of the game. I was wrong and I am not ashamed to admit it. I believed that mocking those less powerful, demeaning and threatening violence, and demonstrating an unwillingness to learn important information to effectively execute the office of president would effectively disqualify him in the minds of the majority in all states. It did not, and he won the electoral college fairly, which in our system is the only measure that matters. He was legitimately elected president. He is still a monster, and now the monster is currently the most powerful person in the world. I’m not sorry I believed the goodness of people, just disappointed in where we got to.

 

 

SA: Now you have literally millions of citizens in the United States who were either right about Trump being the next Hitler, and we will see that behavior emerge from him soon, or they are complete morons. That’s a trigger for cognitive dissonance.

This is a deeply problematic dichotomy which bears examination.

Logical Fallacy: black-or-white: You presented two alternative states as the only possibilities, when in fact more possibilities exist.

Logical Fallacy: begging the question: You presented a circular argument in which the conclusion was included in the premise. 

Response: This is reductive, inflammatory, and disingenuous. Targeting a specific religion and taking away their basic civil liberties as a precursor to making them second-class citizens is exactly how Hitler began. I am in no way saying that he is or will become Hitler, what I am saying is that to imply that behavior might emerge is to whitewash a pretty shocking 10 days of American history. This is definitional gaslighting.

For the record: I have been called a moron before. I have called myself moronic often and sometimes I am. Here’s the thing: I LOVE being wrong. I love it because it means I’ve learned something or the world changed a little from what I expected. I would love to be wrong in this instance. But, how DJT has behaved since taking office terrifies me as much as it disappoints. It is even more shocking the blasé acceptance of a clear double standard when evaluating the behavior of this president.  I believe in the power of this country and I genuinely hoped that the weight of that office would impress on him the duties he signed up to execute but he is not a leader. He isn’t quite Hitler (yet), he is certainly no Lincoln.

In a society that is stretched to breaking point, crying for leadership of any kind, divided by contempt and misunderstanding, he made it demonstrably worse. When tensions are high, and it is important to be the best example of us, instead of creating coalitions, or finding words that heal our divisions, we spend our days at the mercy of his whims and based on how he reacts to the television he watches instead of reading briefings on military operations.

 

SA: The science says these frightened folks will start interpreting all they see as Hitler behavior no matter how ridiculous it might seem to the objective observer.

This is an appeal to authority without the opportunity to interrogate that source which is problematic as a foundation for equal discourse. He names ‘The science’, without citation, a critical element of rational debate founded on an empirical basis. He invites those who agree with him into his camp of ‘objective observers’, thereby implying that only subjective observers would see something different and they are ‘ridiculous’. This sentence is analogous to historical statements that lay the foundation for repression of dissent.

Logical Fallacy: tu quoque: You avoided having to engage with criticism by turning it back on the accuser – you answered criticism with criticism.

Response: I don’t think the analogies to history are completely ridiculous, (neither does this german historian) although I believe we are approaching hysteria on a number of levels across the spectrum. I would caution that inflammatory pieces like this are more likely to make that occur. I think having contempt for the other side makes all of that worse.

 

SA: And sure enough, we are seeing that. To be fair, Trump made it easy this week with his temporary immigration ban. If you assume Trump is Hitler, that fits with your hypothesis. But of course it also fits the hypothesis that he’s just doing his job.  We’re all seeing what we expect to see.

This is classic dog-whistle. Depending on the position you occupy in society this statement will mean widely different things. ‘That’ in the first sentence is deliberately vague. Appealing to rationality in the face of confirmation bias would be a more convincing argument if this article was balanced. This dichotomy is also problematic.

 Logical Fallacy: no true scotsman: You made what could be called an appeal to purity as a way to dismiss relevant criticisms or flaws of your argument.

Response: ‘Temporary immigration ban’ deeply underestimates the impact of this policy on both micro and macro levels. We have already seen innocents denied access to medical care, to loved ones, to studies, and jobs and lives. I can attest that being held in limbo is a special kind of torture and is not an incidental issue to each person impacted. On the macro level, it does not improve security at home, and increases our risks abroad. It offends many allies, and undermines principles that have been sacred to our country since it’s founding. I don’t assume Trump is Hitler. I’m watching carefully to see what kind of leader and president he will be. I also don’t believe he is doing his job. His job is to lead the whole country, the people who agree with him and the people who don’t. For every negative comparison to Obama I will reply: Obama didn’t marginalize, Obama didn’t belittle, Obama didn’t ignore. Obama was not perfect, be he took seriously the job of serving and representing every single citizen of this country and in less than a week DJT has confirmed the hypothesis that he has no intention of doing the same. He has not brought us together. He has not improved our security. He has not improved our standing abroad. He has brought the federal government into conflict with state and local jurisdictions. He has supported the undoing of our health provisions with no alternative, and vowed to save taxpayers a whole 30 dollars a year by eliminating programs demonstrated to lift up those most in need, and the programs that support the foundations of our ongoing experiment with democracy. He has gotten into bed with Pharma and he has shored up the gates to the swamp while filling the pond with ‘gators.

 

SA: But lately I get the feeling that Trump’s critics have evolved from expecting Trump to be Hitler to preferring it. Obviously they don’t prefer it in a conscious way. But the alternative to Trump becoming Hitler is that they have to live out the rest of their lives as confirmed morons.

This is abusive. This is the equivalent of ‘She asked for it.’ Because she was drunk, or didn’t do the dishes or a million other excuses. Claiming to have insight into the mind and psyche of a group for which you clearly demonstrate contempt is a difficult argument to support. 

Fallacy: Gaslighting

Logical Fallacy: strawman: You misrepresented someone’s argument to make it easier to attack. 

Response: Are you kidding me? I think I have a pretty good handle on my own emotions and desires, thanks. Who the heck are you to assume you know me better than I know myself? How arrogant do you have to be to think that is a subject on which you are more well versed than I? Also, more generally, why would anyone WANT him to be Hitler? Unless we all have a massive death-wish? More likely that this a psychological projection. There is a lot of that going around.

You can keep calling me a moron, but it doesn’t change my ability to observe the world rationally, to gather information from a variety of sources, to check my own assumptions and biases and still conclude that he is a terrible president with dangerous instincts and ill-informed actions. I don’t work within your reductive confines, and I am happy to admit when I am wrong without shame. I’d rather be wrong sometimes and learn than be close-minded and not consider new information as it arises.

 

SA: No one wants to be a confirmed moron. And certainly not after announcing their Trump opinions in public and demonstrating in the streets. It would be a total embarrassment for the anti-Trumpers to learn that Trump is just trying to do a good job for America. It’s a threat to their egos. A big one.

Admitting we are wrong is hard, its why ‘trained persuaders’ often set up the conversation in such a way they can avoid that possibility altogether. Again, ascribing a reaction to the other side that there is no basis for but allows him to characterize the other side as petty, small and ego-driven.

Logical Fallacy: ad hominem: You attacked your opponent’s character or personal traits in an attempt to undermine their argument.

Response: I wouldn’t have been embarrassed if Trump had done a good job. I would have been relieved. After the last three weeks I can say that either he isn’t trying to do a good job for all Americans (an important note), or he is REALLY bad at it. I am proud to be American, and want us to be the best we can. I remember when truth, honor, integrity and justice were our national values. We had a historical narrative of helping up those behind us, and standing up for those in need. I miss those days, and wish we could get them back. I want us all to grow again, to return to the days of optimism and productivity, but I don’t want to do that by shutting the doors and pulling the ladder up behind us. We must be honest about where we are, where we’ve been, and what we are each willing to do to begin again to make our shared home better.

I learned in corporate life that there are three kinds of approaches to doing a job: spend your time and energy working to BE really good at your job; spend your time and energy working to LOOK GOOD at your job; spend your time and energy working to MAKE OTHERS LOOK BAD so you can look good in comparison. I know who I respected most and who I wanted to be in that list. I know who was driven by ego.

 

SA: And this gets me to my point. When millions of Americans want the same thing, and they want it badly, the odds of it happening go way up. You can call it the power of positive thinking. It is also the principle behind affirmations. When humans focus on a desired future, events start to conspire to make it happen.

I’m not talking about any new-age magic. I’m talking about ordinary people doing ordinary things to turn Trump into an actual Hitler. For example, if protesters start getting violent, you could expect forceful reactions eventually. And that makes Trump look more like Hitler.

Saying that ‘this is the point’ re embeds the idea that the previous statements were all neutral ground-work and that this is the only argument he is making when in fact the framing and phrasing of this piece has been making a point since the first sentence. In this construction DJT is untouchable. If Trump acts like Hitler it is only in response to my protest, removing the only means I have to speak up if he does act like Hitler, and undermining any argument I might make before I begin.

Logical Fallacy: begging the question: You presented a circular argument in which the conclusion was included in the premise.

Response: If Trump ‘turns into an actual Hitler’ it will be because he made a choice to do so. I would be interested to hear what Jews and Gypsies, and homosexuals, and public intellectuals did to ‘create’ Hitler. The reality is that DJT has moved towards propaganda and repression from day one. Firing the Attorney General for defending the Constitution should make that pretty clear. Our system is designed for loyalty to the founding documents codified through history and custom for a relatively short period of time. I don’t believe the Framers had an idea for ‘alternative facts’ but Websters seems to have a pretty strong definition of what a ‘fact’ is, and it’s pretty concrete.

This reverse logic is what is causing me cognitive dissonance. Most history and social science would agree that increasing repression on those protesting doesn’t tend to do so well. Ask F. W. de Klerk. Protesters usually do so because they have been disenfranchised from traditional democratic mechanisms (like being purged from voter rolls, undue burdens for registration and/ or voting lines 6 hours long) There is ample evidence of that in myriad ways for many of the people who are speaking out. Many of the others are allies- using their privilege and positions to support the ideology that everyone’s voice should be heard.

 

SA: I can think of dozens of ways the protesters could cause the thing they are trying to prevent. In other words, they can wish it into reality even though it is the very thing they are protesting. In the 3rd dimension of persuasion, the protesters need to be proven right, and they will do whatever it takes to make that happen. So you might see the protesters inadvertently create the police state they fear.

Giving the protestors total responsibility while DJT attempts to steal total power is problematic. This construction implies that the future hinges on protestors alone, thereby avoiding the potential that DJT could also prevent this. In fact, each side has autonomous actors, and the reality is that one has much more power than the other. The only person with the power to create a police state is DJT and his administration. He could also choose not to.

Logical Fallacy: begging the question: You presented a circular argument in which the conclusion was included in the premise. 

Response: This may be a radical idea, but I think we should judge DJT against the actions of previous presidents and our highest expectations for a leader. We have had protests (quiet virulent ones) in the past and we have never needed to resort to the kinds of repression that DJT is implying. Democracy means our leader must convince a majority of the populace, they should not coerce, that is the purview of authoritarians.

Again, this is a largely manipulative and abusive construction. This is the logic that says a woman didn’t fight hard enough, or contain herself enough, and if she had just stayed in line she would not have been raped or abused or disenfranchised. I personally think we should tell those committing crimes that they should not do so, instead of teaching already-threatened groups that they must always fear. We should tell boys ‘just don’t rape people, ever’ and we should tell DJT ‘there is no justification for a police-state in the United States, ever.’

 

SA: If you are looking for the tells that this dangerous situation is developing, notice how excited/happy the Trump critics seem to be – while angry at the same time – that Trump’s immigration ban fits their belief system. If you see people who are simply afraid of Trump, they are probably harmless. But the people who are excited about any Hitler-analogy-behavior by Trump might be leading the country to a police state without knowing it. So watch for that.

This is a contradictory statement, again, seemingly to blame protestors for potential future aggression by those against whom they protest. This is another version of divide to conquer.

Logical Fallacy: the texas sharpshooter: You cherry-picked a data cluster to suit your argument, or found a pattern to fit a presumption.

Response: This is the exact kind of argument used to justify repressive measures by an authoritarian state.

 

 

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When the beacon of justice goes out, what will we use to light our way? 

shepard-equal-humanity-greaterthanfearForeword:

I originally wrote the story below in the innocent days of August 2016. Its hard to believe how much hope I had then, and what a contrast I feel now.

For those friends who caution restraint, even in linguistics, who believe that an erosion of civil rights has not yet begun, I ask that you attempt empathy for me, even if you can’t for those currently in the same limbo at airports around the country.

Each one of the detained has a life, a social network, goals, and loved ones waiting for them at home. The vast majority are students and doctors, parents and neighbors, co-workers and friends. We already have a rigorous vetting process for all applications to this country that is proven to be as effective as possible. This type of thing has never happened before, despite claims to the contrary. This policy does not increase security, but threatens our partnerships in conflict regions and is a death sentence to families that risked their lives to support our interests.

I am a deeply privileged white woman with resources of many kinds to help me through my own experience. Please recognize that without all the help I had, my refused entry would have been emotionally crushing and life-altering. Delay of even one more day in my case would have meant an entire year lost because I would have been too far behind to catch up.

I do believe that in times of peace and stability it is helpful to adapt your attitude to hand out happy, but this is not that time. This time our integrity is under threat. This is not a bureaucratic error. Foundational elements of our political system are under threat and ‘not minding’ is not an option.

If you feel this story in any way might help someone understand the human cost of a refused entry, please share. We are all human, we all feel joy and pain and loss. We have come too far to return to tribalism and hatred and outright violence.

The most white supremacist thought to which I have ever been immediately attuned was in the stress of the situation described below. I was in the deportation lounge thinking ‘Can’t they see I’m not a terrorist?’ My second though was ‘wow, that was pretty racist. What does a terrorist look like? Why can’t she look like you?’ I didn’t know until I had that thought how shocking it is to realize you were racist all along. The shame of that self-reflection is not easy to bear and is terrifying to share publicly. Both feelings inform how important it is to share this story. It is critical that we are all a little more reflective, a little more honest, with ourselves and with our fellow citizens.

Any shame I feel is outweighed by the hope that in sharing I might help one person to see a little more clearly. Hopefully some of this speaks to you.

 

The secret to a charmed life is making all the green lights… and not minding the red ones

This popped into my head on a sunny September afternoon while waiting in traffic at an intersection I used to breeze through in SE Portland.

I was considering my helplessness, stuck in Portland while the rest of my graduate classmates were moving in, finding books, meeting each other and beginning class. That was all continuing on the other side of the world while I was waiting for a light, and waiting for my whole life at the same time.

I was supposed to be in London, and I was here, waiting for the British civil service to decide if I was going to be allowed back, if I could live and study in the UK, a place I was pretty sure was integral to my whole future. Looking back, I suppose there was an issue I was a security risk. I thought I was a normal 20 something, just wanting to go back to school. I didn’t think that my constant international travel looked suspicious, although I should have known better after all that time traveling to weird destinations. Student tickets aren’t usually the means of constant global circumnavigation

It started like all my other trips. I packed, printed documents, double checked lists and said my goodbyes. From the moment I stepped on the plane I was on my way to a new chapter of life, expectant, nervous, a little jittery with my soundtrack plugged firmly in my ears.

I hit the immigration hall out of the gate. I was excited to be there and I knew this drill. A lifetime of international travel and I thought I knew it all. Little did I know I had only ever seen one side of that system.

I strode confidently up to the podium, my passport and a print-out of my invitation letter proudly displayed. I tried to keep the conversation short and polite, my goal was to get out of the airport and on the train asap. I guessed I could be in my room in 2 hours, max. My head was already at Paddington station, looking for a taxi.

I was drawn back to the podium by a question “Where is your visa?”

I was confused. They were supposed to stamp that. That is how most visas worked for American passport holders (outside China, at least.) My two previous student visas had been granted that way.

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand. Isn’t that what we’re doing? Did I forget to give you my letter?”

(Always be polite when traveling, it costs nothing and is much more effective)

“I’m sorry, I’ll be right back”

I was left standing alone at the podium while others streamed by me. I had never had this perspective before, I was always the streaming, moving quickly through barriers with a smile and a quick polite word. It was disorienting, to suddenly know something is different and off, but not understand what exactly is happening. I was told to take a seat and wait. My original timeline was now very off and I was very much present in only this moment.

Flights land at Heathrow from all over the world, passengers enter the UK from 3 international terminals. That year 68 million passengers passed through their doors.

After I had been sitting for 20 minutes, a flight landed from Lagos. About half of the African passengers were detained for health screenings. I considered how lucky I was. Mine was probably a simple misunderstanding, his was being born in the wrong place. I was scared but grateful for the reminder to take deep breaths and choose happy.

I was not allowed in that day. I was refused entry, detained and treated suspiciously by a group I had previously barely noticed. I was fingerprinted, photographed and interviewed. I was in a windowless room with a payphone useless to me. It was early Sunday morning GMT, who would be available? Could anyone help? I sat with the other Americans who had made my same mistake. For some it had been a gamble, for some a genuine misunderstanding. There was a quorum of about 5-6 students, constantly shifting, but always about the same size. There was a woman who had been at a conference and couldn’t give up her passport long enough to get the visa. She was kind in telling me to give up hope immediately, but I was still naïve enough to be unable to comply.

There was a VERY highly strung gentleman from New York who kept us informed of the events he was currently missing at his college on an hourly basis, in between lamenting how miserable this situation was. Now was the coach to meet him, now was the welcome drinks, now was the meeting with his advisor. Maybe he could just buy a cheap ticket to Denmark or Amsterdam, and stay a few days. It is the only time in my life I have ever genuinely thought ‘you are killing my zen, man’

I was trying not to panic and so had not begun to focus on how this knot would be unraveled. I kept thinking that when they understood how the mistake happened, and that I was unaware of a rule change, there would be some accommodation.  There was a singular unwillingness to do anything other than process us and send us home to deal with their colleagues in another branch of UKBA.

We went down to the arrivals hall to collect my bags, including the extra I had brought and paid for. I was quickly learning what it was to be accompanied everywhere, treated as a suspect.

My luggage was searched thoroughly in the otherwise empty entry hall as other passengers sailed through ‘nothing to declare’ and searchd again in front of the entire flight I was put on to get me home as quickly as possible. I had a short chance to call my parents to tell them to expect me. I was escorted with 3 guards, all at least a head taller than I was, the most unlikely international menace you had ever seen. They walked either side and behind me, to the van with the cage in the back and from the cage to the secure departure area where they checked my bags again. My rational mind knew it was a shaming mechanism: how could I have any contraband when the bags had been in their possession since they last searched them? The rest of me was mostly numb. The female guard, taking pity, gave me the chance to pull 2 things from my checked bags- a clean shirt and a stuffed dog who was my most constant companion.

And there I was. In seat 47G, on my way to another 30 hour journey back home to figure out what came next. I flew to Dallas, was met and given a hotel room, woke in darkness to the ringing of the wake-up call and stumbled onto a plane to O’Hare, more grief from TSA, probably because I was a mess and easy. Finally, I arrived back where I started, 72 hours later. My parents had hugs and plans and we had a mad rush for the first 3 days while I got a new passport (a whole other story) and sent all the paperwork to the consulate. Apparently, they aren’t kidding when they say ‘check all immigration requirements’ because those suckers change! As an undergrad I needed a letter, as a postgrad (and post 9/11 and 7/7) one needed a bank account, and a letter, and a whole form, and additional photos. We sent everything they asked and called everyone we knew who might be able to help. And then we waited.

The thing that people misunderstand about government, is that there are lots of parts and they function very differently. The civil service is a job for life. It’s a slow but steady rise, as long as you do your job, don’t make trouble, and are good at the tasks assigned you, its possible to have a wonderful life, and contribute to society. People in the civil service are the balance to politics. They keep the trains running, and the security at borders well, but they are also impervious to changing or breaking the rules. They are annoyed by people trying to circumvent a system and they are careful and thorough. All of which meant I was totally helpless, waiting at that light. Hoping a stranger would read my application, including the statement of why I made the mistake I did and got sent back. There was nothing I could do, no levers to pull.

The only option was to wait at that light, and wait for that civil servant and trust that I would be on time where I was going, and that things would work out ok. The only thing I could do was try to not mind the waiting. To decide that there was a reason that things happen and I’m not always in control.

Sometimes we hit all the green lights, and some days there are more red ones. The way to ensure we have a charmed life either way is to make sure to hit all the greens, or just to choose… not to mind the red ones.

 

Afterward:

I was able to have hope because I trusted the system, and I have faith in something higher. I still believe there is an order to the universe, but our system is in trouble. It is imperative that we fight on, using whatever tools we can, until we see green lights for everyone again.

 

 

How to argue with people on the internet

2016-01-23 20.36.21I have been struggling quite a bit as the election and the aftermath have unfolded. Since losing my mum I’ve made a consistent, deliberate effort to connect with her side of the family and they are almost universally Mormon, Republican and old-school Conservative. This election has been hard to navigate when to speak up and when to stay quiet, who will listen and when it isn’t valuable to pursue. I love these people, especially these women, and I am so grateful for the ways they have welcomed and accommodated me. At the same time, we disagree profoundly about so many things. We come from the same place and yet we have taken such different paths across multiple generations. Remaining in connection is important to me and yet… it can be hard. I know that any conversation we have is visible to wider communities and reflects on us both.

Where I come from is this:

This country (and the world) has had problems that we have used band aids and smokescreens to avoid solving. My liberal-bias-side would say that in the 1960s the world evolved and there is a group who doesn’t want it to be that way. They find the changes (dare I say ‘evolution’) threatening for lots of reasons and are unwilling to compromise what they feel are core identity issues. But, being fair, I think there are also some good points buried in what they are saying too. Globalization has been displacing, diversity is difficult to navigate at times, and we have not supported our entire community to reap the benefits of ever-increasing-productivity.

I had the opportunity to witness a Mormon ward and although it was closed and ideologically driven, it was also the most committed, supportive community I have ever witnessed. In many ways it was a time warp to when we lived in communities close enough that our neighbors helped care for the ill and the less fortunate. It was also a beautiful thing. I think we have all had some situation when we didn’t want to face reality, or when we believed a good thing was under threat. We rarely think about the fact that even the space to contemplate ‘I don’t want it this way’ is a privilege.

Trump voters (and Brexit voters) are insecure enough (across economic, social and psychological measures) that they don’t have the capacity (or believe they don’t) to adapt to a post-structural order. That is my generous interpretation. All of these things don’t make their beliefs and narratives ok with my value-system, but it does allow me a higher level of empathy with their suffering and their attachment to their position.

In terms of approach:

I remember my first debate training ‘aha’ moment. I was 19 at the time with no formal training so I had a slightly different (read less effective) approach to argument. It was like a Klaxon bell for me. Nick Bibby taught me that in a real debate you will never be able to convince the other side, you can only hope to convince the audience. Your opponent is spending all their energy on trying to prove you wrong, regardless, so they are not particularly open to saying ‘oh, I guess I was wrong’. I’ve learned over time that if you believe you are in a fight to win you have no brain-space to contemplate anything other than how ‘they’ might be wrong.

My friend Ross K Allan is special because he is rare. He’s nuts (and he thinks I am), but he is open to the possibility he might be wrong and enjoys the argument as much to learn as to win. There are only a few people in the world who really enjoy arguing for sport and to find someone who loves the activity and disagrees almost entirely with the things that inform my personal ideology is only one of the ways I am lucky. When we were both at the LSE we had coffee and argued for fun for hours and never cared who ‘won.’ Another friend joined us once and immediately moved the goal-posts so he could ‘win.’ He never joined an argument again. I know how much privilege went into those afternoons of arguing and how much generosity I owe to anyone who hasn’t had the time to hone those skills.

I start from the premise that the other side is not ignorant or dumb (it is not my job to educate them), but instead that we have different core values. I use the information provided from previous interactions, or from the conversation itself to decide if that person is open to alternative information, and/or views. I state my views as simply as I can, accounting for their context/ language and use things that are easily googled for evidence. I try to respect what they come back with to the greatest extent possible and with the most generosity I can afford. If they are open, I pursue the conversation, if they are not, I invest less, but don’t dismiss them.

At the point when they become angry, hateful, or dismissive I’m happy to walk away from the conversation without needing to leave judgement and almost always happy to leave the door open if they want to re-engage. Examples can be seen both on this blog and on my Facebook page.

I always, ALWAYS try to take the high road, mostly so when I look back I feel good about my actions. I don’t think the important thing is how they respond to me, but how I respond to them, and what I can learn from the situation; about them, about me, about the world in which we co-habitate.

I try to use as much nuance in our interactions as I can, including using public or private communication, timing (if I see red I wait until I’m calm again to respond), directed or undirected comments. I respond and point out inconsistency or flaws to other’s posts, but I try to be positive as much as possible in my own. If I know I will hurt someone’s feelings or upset them, depending on how important they are to me, I will try to soften that blow or remind them that despite our disagreement, we still have areas in common. I’m happy to drop a topic if requested and don’t need someone to justify why. I try to stress things to balance where I call them out because it is hard to be wrong and everyone has pride. I think about our common links and the impact of our dialogue on the wider group. I choose when to engage in debate pretty carefully and practice observing in new spaces or if I am unsure of the majority opinion of a group. I check in with myself often.

Our advanced state of capitalism, poor education system, and marketing sophistication combined with a history that many don’t know and common narratives that are often simulacra (papering over previous generations of suffering), all contribute to a fully divided American polity. I know that it is my own privilege that lets me pass back and forth, even while my gender disenfranchises me in many places. This allows me to see both sides in many discussions.

I try to bring love, and hope and clarity as much as possible because I think fear, division and blame are the real dangers of our current political direction. I think these issues have been festering for centuries (or longer); our constitution has our original, unresolved, race-debate enshrined in its text. We amended the document (with a civil war) but the emotional labor to fully knit us together has never been done. Instead, there are regularly figures who exploit these tensions for their own gain. Exploitation for personal gain is not rare or unique, it is also buried in our national narrative.

Discerning what is a topic for rational discussion and what is a matter of emotion or faith is important to know where your valuable energy is worthy of use. Also helpful to know which battles are important (ones with large audiences who might be open to alternative ideas) and which are not (you and a douche in a coffee shop or supermarket queue with no one else around.)

It is a hard boundary to know how much to be kind to others during a period of ‘awakening’ and how much one’s kindness is used to help an intransigent avoid dealing with real issues. This is where reversing the burden of proof can be helpful. Instead of trying to prove them wrong, I ask them questions to make them support their racist point, or critique from a meta perspective (gently) things like lack of evidence, an assertion with no argumentation, poor sources of citation, etc. My goal is not to prove them wrong, but to engage in a Socratic dialogue to help them see my point. It could easily be argued that I am using my own privilege of intelligence and education to marginalize them, but I try to be aware of that and use it as much as possible to increase my own capacity for patience and empathy.

I try to remain engaged in the debate and avoid it ever being about a person. ‘I’ statements help, and remaining on issue (including steering back that direction) are helpful in that.

My mum used to say “the way in is usually a question but it’s rarely ‘have you thought of this?'”

I’ll usually follow a conversation through one cycle of dismissal, vitriol or ad hominem attacks and then I’ll let it drop. The point is more to plant seeds than to win battles. Change takes a long time, and Inception is a great strategy for large societal shifts.

Many people disengage or attack because they know they can’t win and it’s a way of avoidance. I won’t let them get away with that, but I won’t be mean about it either. Humility is important to me, and so I also remind myself that everyone has something to teach me, albeit sometimes it’s more about them as an object or a catalyst.

All of this is grounded in HUGE time devoted to doing my personal work and remaining balanced and grounded intrinsically.

This is meaningful to me: “People don’t want to be immediately dismissed because they might have a view that you consider wrong or even vile; they want to feel heard. And once that happens, it’s a lot easier for them to make mental space to understand other people’s problems.” (http://www.vox.com/identities/2016/11/15/13595508/racism-trump-research-study)

It does take time, and stupid amounts of emotional labor. I think an unwillingness to do one’s own emotional labor is at root for a lot of this current aggression. In traditional Western societies, women do emotional labor and men fight the wars. Feminism has spent 50+ years attempting to upend this dichotomy. It is threatening and messy and complicated and scary when those simple binaries don’t exist. That is the root of much social conflict that I see today. Binaries always include and exclude and currently those inclusions, exclusions and boundaries are all under dispute.

I think honesty and deliberation are important personally and in relationship and the sensationalism of our media and the schism created by so much diversity so densely packed is both a new conflict and the same war we have been fighting since agrarian times. Intersectionality helps, but also just being candid about one’s own limitations, perspectives and biases.

So many people are scared for so many reasons. I have always marveled at things like the stock market and sovereignty as both are premised on a slightly unfathomably large group just agreeing to a concept, or having confidence in a system. It is all governed by how a huge number of people feel.

Politics is about power, but more importantly it is about people, relationship and community. Most people follow the law because it is the law, not because they will be punished if they don’t. People want to get along with others and fighting always must end at some point.

I spent a lot of time at the LSE thinking about the continuum between coercion and convincing. I understand the Realist drive to coercion and I agree there are many gangsters out there. But to believe in democracy is to believe that the power of more people, applied deliberatively and with love, can make the tide rise for all boats. US history is a mix of both gangsters and idealists and we must acknowledge both to be able to move forward.

The more someone pushes my buttons, the more I realize I have something important I can learn from them. Sometimes I also realize its ok to just take a break.

A constant source of comfort for me is the thoughtful, intersectional, feminist responses I see from young people around the world, and especially my peers from the debating community. International competitive debate has changed drastically since I was an undergrad. When I started competing I was a member of the most patriarchal, misogynist, xenophobic, chauvinist society you could imagine. When I got to international competition I thought it would be better but I took on the job of Women’s officer after a Women’s Forum that was… underwhelming in nature. No discussion of systemic inequality that impacted women and other marginalized group’s chances of doing well in the competition. The sea-change from then to now is amazing and was a series of tiny steps over almost 15 years.

My first act as Women’s Officer to WUDCouncil was to introduce an equity officer. I received so many concerns that first year, but only a portion were about gender equity and a great number about religion, accent, LGBTQ issues and access. We introduced the equity officer to better serve the needs of the whole community. That was a first step but it would be a further four years before Org Com had an equity team with any actual power. Those were a difficult and often impotent four years of constant battles large and small. It was worth it. This week I have had exquisite joy as the LSESU Open announced its equity team directly after announcing the CA team. It isn’t perfect, but it’s SO much better than it was and that gives me hope. We each impact a few people deeply, but if they are improved by it, and impact a few more people, those ripples can really make a difference.

If a single person sees my words and examines one belief more carefully then I consider my efforts valuable. I may be tilting at windmills still, but hope for greater understanding and more nuanced resolution is ultimately the only real strategy I have.

Emotional labor for my Trump-Voting loved ones

It was my mother, as it is almost always the mother, who kissed my hurts, and taught me slowly the secrets she learned:

That feminism is asking for equality.
That equality doesn’t mean displacement.
That if we communicate clearly there is often more than one way to share an orange.
That I am enough as I am, and Louis IV invented rules of etiquette to keep his court busy.
That hearing my own voice, deep from my own soul, will always point the right direction. Continue reading

On the insanity of many things

I was sent a link today by a colleague. He was a little worried because it was Jezebel, both by the idea of him being on Jezebel (way to be welcoming to allies) and by what it might say that he was sending me a link. The video was funny-ish, if you like laughing at people and their insanity, but the part that was weirdest to me were the YouTube video adverts preceding the actual content. The first was startling by both the level to which I was offended and the distance from the mark; thinking I would be a good prospect.

Its possible I was more surprised after a week at Dreamforce learning about the tools that currently exist for truly world-class targeting of content and prospecting. But the first link was for a breast enhancement cream, and the second for some ridiculous new form of face-paint. Not that I don’t care about my own presentation (albeit admittedly much less than many of my peers), but SO many things about me say that the ad is both unlikely to be successful in getting my money and likely to make me very very angry.

I also noticed the number of things they did with marketing to try to fix what seems to me to be a product based on so many flawed ideas and damaging assumptions. Using an RSA style to ‘teach’ as an introduction into a way to further the message of superficiality seems oxymoronic (emphasis on the moron). The juxtaposition of insight to shallowness is startling. Furthermore, how they got to a place through my activities or history thinking I would be a good prospect is currently boggling my mind.

enhancement add

I went to try to complain to YouTube but of course that is almost impossible. Lots of ways to complain about the video, none to complain about the advert.

I don’t totally know how to react other than to dismiss it as a product of modern life. But I find it strange that shaking it off is the only solution to something this totally screwed up on so many levels. I guess ranting to a twitterverse of total strangers is a close second to actually trying to fix any of the myriad inherent problems in the situation. Talk about a radical view of power and total disenfranchisement…

Political Debates 9: (She said)

This was a difficult debate to find coherent themes for and I wanted to try to draw it back to some specific points of crystallization so I’ve grouped by theme below.

Individual v. Collective

I think you are mischaracterizing part of my argument, but for the sake of discussion I’ll engage with your comments about the individual unfettered or within a collective governance structure. I see the difference caused because she, the individual, isn’t simply left alone in isolation without any governance structure. She is placed in a situation that incentivizes rampant individualism acted out against others. That is the point, that our governance structures are created as a result of the need to contain individual self-actualization, protecting the rights of those who would otherwise be exploited, and protecting the majority from destructive forces that benefit the few by harming the many. My argument is not fully for one or the other but that there must be a balance between the two. That’s why I believe in sensibly regulated private exchange. I think regulation is pretty important though to create a more level playing field and ensure competition, maintain quality and protect consumers, protect the environment and our economy. (full disclosure: I copied most of these benefits of regulation directly from the Wikipedia article but that doesn’t make it any less relevant.)

I don’t disagree with your points about individual self-interest demonstrated by the VA case (actually, they kind of help make my point), but I also wonder what engenders the level of fear that would let people die instead of owning to a mistake? What allows someone to abandon a basic sense of morality? How close to disaster are they? What happens if they lost this job? How desperate must one be to sacrifice another? And why are they in that space? Surely if the government pays them enough, and they don’t fear unemployment the only reason they could sacrifice those others is because they are somehow evil. And yet- they took a job intended to help someone else. There must be powerful social forces at work that help engender this result, or we must write off whole groups of people as evil or subhuman.  I choose to believe there are forces at work, so I don’t have to write off other humans.

My perception of the individual is specifically not anarchic, I agree that people are naturally social and often come together voluntarily, but I think that Capitalism and Democracy are necessary correlates and serve to balance the dangers inherent in each. Democracy, when properly functioning, restrains the potential for human exploitation, and Capitalism encourages innovation and supports a vibrant and dynamic public sphere. Liberalism is an important third pillar, and ensures we navigate the dangerous path around majoritarianism and chauvinism, but it is important we are careful to maintain the bonds that unite us. People are both social and self-interested (for profit or to avoid danger), we need to take into account both possibilities, and structure society in such a way to help allow for and contain the opposing tides which means a discussion about a cohesive social fabric is highly germane! J

Also, I think I might totally agree with about moral relativism, although I think it might be a beginning, not an ending. I totally understand why it seems scary, but I think our government was founded as a first attempt at allowing for a high degree of difference while still making tactical decisions about matters of common concern. It would seem like maybe we should try to continue that project?

Power Imbalances/ Inequality

At the point you admit we have a major problem when income is concentrated year after year I think you kind of concede much of the argument we are having. I honestly thought you might be joking for a minute there.  I’m not ruling out completely movement within the 1%, or even some movement within the top 3%-10% (I think this is pretty generous, but why not indulge slightly), but pretty much all evidence points to stagnant social mobility across the country, and decreasing potential for those not already wealthy to become so. This isn’t inherently a problem, but when we take away the things that used to provide a basic safety net, and we are unable to grow our way out of our current societal ills, we need to rethink our equation.

I also think it’s pretty obvious that disproportionate levels of education in this country, as well as different access to health care, mental-health care, socio-communal acceptance levels, etc engender inherently unfair contract negotiations. There are clauses in contracts written specifically because if you went to law school the clause is meaningless and if you didn’t you are somehow automatically at a disadvantage (because- y’know, not having gone to law school wasn’t hindrance enough for the highly paid lawyers to beat them in any kind of negotiation) You can even put metrics against it- there are high levels of variability in the infant and overall mortality rates. Sure, overall we all live longer- but there is a widening gap. Inequality in our society is bad and getting worse and that’s a problem for all of us.

If you believe in any positive rights, but the government is not the agent who should be concerned with their provision, I would be interested in what actor is responsible instead?

‘Structural unaddressed violence’ is specifically not a debate term. It encompasses the idea that there are structural issues within our society- things like access to basic human-rights-based services- that unfairly advantage and disadvantage other groups; access to things like good schools, an education in the things necessary for functioning as a citizen and securing future basic provisions, or access to basic childhood preventative health care.

It also encompasses a similar argument from a different discipline. The idea that violence is executed sometimes by specific actors against others, and sometimes inflicted in such a way that the individual internalizes that violence and continues the harm against themselves. We don’t address it for a variety of reasons, but our choice to remain with the status quo should not be taken as proof that inherent power relations are ok. Also, I think it’s important to note that we are beyond any notion of patriarchy and exclusions that could ever be mistaken for vague.

I’m also a little confused about your statement about non-discrimination as I read news pretty regularly about how SCOTUS keeps making judgements that specifically discriminate access to basic health care based on gender. And specifically in ways that demonstrably lead to economic, educational and other forms of discrimination and disproportionality (a woman’s ability to plan her family has long-term material consequences for both her and her society. You can say she can ‘just go buy it herself’ but when many families live hand-to-mouth an additional $250/ year can be overwhelming)

I would actually love to hear your arguments about the ‘check your privilege’ brigade. I don’t believe in cutting off avenues of debate- if you think there is something to be said there that adds to your overall argument, or is in some way an answer or foundation I would say that is totally germane.

 What’s to be done?

I think what we both definitely agree on is that what we are doing now isn’t working. The problem with your charter schools example as the alternative is an age old question in research: what happens if they fail? What happens to that group of students- failure for them becomes a lifelong issue, that we either will pay for in forms of social insurance, crime, or the further moral decay of whatever relativistic place we inhabit?

I have to disagree with your premise that ‘despite enormous sums of money’ education is failing. That assumes that the only thing that impacts the education of our young people is the overall aggregate amount of material resources over a long period of time. This is a problematic statement on a lot of levels- a) not sure it really is all that much money when it all shakes out, and b) unfortunately isolating specific parts of social infrastructure, alternately funding and defunding them, subjecting them to huge outside pressures and then blaming them for failure seems a little like a thumb on the scale to me. There was an Economist article a few years ago about the importance of respect and parental involvement in the overall success of children. How well respected are our teachers when parents struggle to name their childrens’ teachers instead of reality TV stars?

I agree we need to try something else, because what we are doing isn’t working. But we also need to ensure that we do not lose more generations of students in our experimentation. I would also posit that there have been successes as well as failure. So my question is why scrap instead of reform? Why do we have to throw out everything and treat something that really shouldn’t be subject to market pressures in the same way we treat any other commodity for trade?

Also, as an aside (and with gratitude to my brother the policy-smart-guy) The argument that government size is related to income inequality “is absurd for a few reasons. First, the size of government has grown both under times of growing and shrinking inequality. Government grew a lot from 1930-1960, yet inequality shrank. The better indicator for inequality is marginal tax rates. As they have shrunk over the last 40 years, inequality has skyrocketed. Also, there is zero evidence that trickle down, supply side or minimalist government reduces inequality. In fact, the laisse faire 1920s saw a massive rise in inequality.”

On utopian socialism, it is, and I don’t advocate it, but it seems like almost every other industrialized country of the world has somehow gotten the balance better than we have. They oscillate between spectrums, but there are mechanisms to try to avoid barbarism, and a total denial of huge classes of people as people. I don’t believe all people will be totally equal and neither should they be. But I think we lose something as a society if most individuals are not allowed to at least have a fighting chance to reach their full potential. But for that to happen it takes a balance of functioning democracy and capitalism- we need both. I see your point re: xenophobia in Europe but I also don’t see furnaces, and the redirection of scarce resources to exterminate marginalized groups. I would still say we are doing better than we have.

I think I agree a little more with the Canadian system than you- there is both a letter and a spirit of the law, and to ignore the spirit completely is as foolish as believing we know what The Framers would think about politics today. Again, balancing the history and context, why they were writing, is as important to reading what they wrote. Sadly, writers almost always assume that audiences will understand their context- because they inhabit the same temporal space, or because they will inevitably be minor students of history. We know this, it’s demonstrated in literature critique and critical theory and cognitive psychology. We have to impute something of why they wrote what they did, as well as just the literal text. That is specifically the job of the judiciary, to interpret. If they were smart enough to know that interpretation was such an important piece of the functioning of law, they had to also expect that their intentions would be considered, as well as the letter of the laws they were drafting.

Also, do you honestly believe that we have the possibility of civil discourse at this point to deliberate on Constitutional amendments? Do you think if those in power even tried that there is even the slightest chance of an actual debate on the issue? In the chamber? With actual evidence? And would any of the media outlets actually respect the importance of the debate? The system is broken. I sincerely hope we all realize that and converse from within that context.

Laws aren’t usually created in abstract. At times they predate the actions they are designed to contain, when a large enough majority is afraid of the potential of something to make that decision. I would posit that more often however laws are made in specific response to needs within society. A harm that is large enough governors decide that action must be taken to curb or contain that harm. More than that, usually laws are created to protect those in society least able to protect themselves. I totally agree that in the last 30 years unfortunately some of that execution has shifted and the willingness of private interests to subvert the good of the people has taken hold. But it doesn’t negate the fact that we have to find a solution to the problems that face us, and that so far, some form of effect government has been the most successful means of doing that.

Honestly, that might be part of my difficulty. I still believe in an old-fashioned idea of government. In which it contains people of integrity- who see their job as a responsibility to be completed with honor. When did that change? When did we come to distrust those who stand up to take that responsibility? Does our slide into a never-ending political race mean we think only those driven by ego will put themselves up? Governance and its correlate government are specifically mechanisms of individuals trying to make efficient the mechanisms of our collective life. There are major issues in the manifestation we have, but I’m struggling to understand where the heart of your argument is. For example, you have many instances where our current bureaucracy is ineffective- is the issue that government should not be the mechanism for delivery of basic positive rights? Or do you truly believe that not all people have a right to a life unencumbered by preventable diseases?

The article you sent on positive and negative rights was a great one. (I mostly ignored the rhetoric at the beginning J) I mean, my basic and possibly simplistic answer is that it might just be easier if we viewed basic health provision as a positive right best ensured by government, and businesses paid higher taxes instead of purchasing the means for enacting that right privately (i.e. redirect the funds they pay one entity and pay another instead). The government could more effectively negotiate with large insurance companies and private citizens wouldn’t have to subject their negative rights to public negotiation. That way private groups wouldn’t have to be agents of the state and everything would be a bit easier? (I am awaiting your argument about the waste in government providing health care with great joy!)

Conclusion

I think that is plenty for us to be getting on with. But I can’t believe I forgot to talk about use-value and symbolic-exchange! Use value and symbolic-exchange-value are some of the best things I learned in my studies! It’s the spectrum between which something has value for the actual material resource it is/ can be used for and value based on the symbolism it invokes in us. A car is a car- but a branded car gives me a meaning and identity far beyond taking me to the store for milk. This is relevant because the concepts through which we understand society are becoming more and more abstract and difficult to negotiate. I think we need to reground ourselves in what we think matters, what we can agree on, and an attempt- however impossible it might seem- to agree to a process to negotiate difference in a way that leads to meaningful compromise and progress.

Always lovely to hear your ideas!

Political Debates 7: (She said)

So I have lots of specific points of clash to the arguments you are making, and I will address them (probably to the detriment of the unwieldy documents once again), but I also have some higher level thoughts unrelated. There were a number of points I made in that last unwieldy email that were left unaddressed; neat rhetoric, slightly problematic argumentation.

1)      Namely, the danger of allowing an individual to pursue personal ends, specifically when there is a lack of social fabric that contains the ways that individual pursuit can have detrimental effects on society. The individual unaware (or uncaring) of fellow citizens can be highly destructive and we have little in the way of a collective conception of good to contain that. Constitution notwithstanding that is a very real danger in society that you left completely unaddressed. The individual as a locus of power also fails to address many of the collective issues we currently face: how does the free-market solve for environmental harm? Or historical disenfranchisement and disempowerment?

2)      Levels of inequality in our system are both highly problematic and increasing in disparity- this has consequences both on the individual and on the functioning of society. Violence and crime are often the manifestation of structural unaddressed violence and infringe on many citizen’s ability to exercise both positive and negative rights.  The majority of your arguments are predicated in a private sphere in which individuals can fairly negotiate, but you have not addressed a single one of the points I previously made about the impossibility of that function for many of our fellow Americans.

3)      I would be very interested to hear how you address the previously disenfranchised groups in society. It is simple to dismiss the fact that the framers were largely racist, misogynist elitist people. In and of itself that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and I recognize they were a natural product of their time. In fact, the privilege afforded them by that place in society allowed them more time to think and formulate ideas about societal structures that are more robust and have lasted incredibly long. Overall their privilege was a benefit to pretty much everyone that came after them. That being said, there are still a number of issues to which they (and many contemporary equivalents) were able to be blind while those less privileged are unable to ignore. (see new Harvard class on privilege)

4)      Similarly, I am surprised that the crux of your argument seems to begin and end at the constitution. While I agree that it is a pretty amazing piece of legislation, and the Framers were more intelligent individuals than most of us could ever hope to be, ignoring the context within which it was written, as well as the context within which we find ourselves is problematic to interpreting the document itself and applying it to current socio-economic realities. It is also dangerous to ascribe to the current narrative of the framers original intent. I may be more attuned to this (y’know, writing a dissertation on it and all), but the reality is that the story we are told (and continue to tell) is significantly different than historical fact bears out. The fact that almost a third of the colonists retired to Canada demonstrates the ambivalence with which the revolution was greeted. It has been the central tenet of the ongoing debate about Jefferson’ original intent with the Declaration ever since; the tension between the form of governance required for such a large state, and the levels of autonomy espoused as justifications for the Revolution. The Declaration was intended basically as an opening argument in an expected legal battle against Westminster. They had no idea it meant an actual split with Parliament. They saw themselves as an evolution within the canon of the Magna Carta, the establishment of Westminster and Cromwell.

5)      That canon has continued to evolve (albeit slowly and not without problems) but looking at alternative models of democracy can offer instructive lessons and we are naïve if we don’t consider the significant pitfalls we might be able to avoid. The expansion of bureaucracy throughout the EU, while problematic in myriad ways, has contained high potential levels of violence and xenophobia at the very least in Greece and likely in other states as well. Also, what is it specifically about socialism that is so terrible? Cooperative enterprise seems pretty important these days and making sure we continue to recognize use-value as well as symbolic-exchange-value ensures our system of exchange remains grounded in the material- pretty important for things like sustenance and making sure the environment doesn’t completely implode and kill us all 🙂

6)      I think most of my specific points of rebuttal are related to the previous overarching point, but I’ll go slightly deeper and rebut a few specific items.

  1. It’s disheartening that you don’t believe fully in natural rights. That essentially says that individuals really have no meaning without the paternalistic hand of government/the majority to tell us what we can/cannot do”: It’s not that I don’t believe in them, it’s that I recognize that the practical realities of human nature make it almost impossible to practice them, and while in the abstract there is value in recognition, if there is an impossibility of exercise I’m not totally sure of the actual value to society. It actually recognizes that there is the possibility of infringement of rights in a variety of ways that must be recognized and guarded against, if only through vigilance.
  2. “there are rights that existed before the creation of government”:  Totally agree, which is why I am a Constructivist, but I also recognize that almost all of history chronicles groups infringing on the rights of others. The only peaceful societies that are allowed to live without infringement are externally violent or serve as hubs for resource/ economic trade and are left alone because those militarily powerful recognize the value of a neutral sphere within which business can be done. We ignore this historical reality to our potential detriment, regardless of the laudable reasons for doing so.
  3. So for most, my arguments about individual liberty are an utter abstraction”: I think where I keep hoping to get to is an elucidation of what that would actually look like in practice. I think I don’t disagree with you completely in the abstract, but when attempted in practice, it rarely functions as the ideal, and more often disenfranchises those already less privileged.
  4. Inequality has not gone down despite an increased social safety net that spends more money every year… today’s liberals pursue more of the same” : Because it worked! In the 1950s and 60s redistribution policies grew the overall economy and led to much greater equality from all disenfranchised groups in society. Inequality overall had gone down and civil rights expanded across most groups, until a huge amount of deregulation during the previous administration increased income inequality and allowed those with power in society to continue amassing it while simultaneously disenfranchising those without power on a number of levels (income, general prosperity, voter rights etc) (if you want citations I’ll give them, but decided it was better to actually send this)
  5. Again, while an abstraction, if government were smaller and played less a role in our day to day lives, you’d find that the exercise of those negative rights will lead to improved social and economic outcomes.”  : So, wow. How is my previous statement hogwash?  Rhetorically strong, but doesn’t actually address the argument in the sentence just previous to that you quoted “Allowing all individuals access to some base level of provision/ safety net allows them to exercise all the other rights and improves civil society in precisely the way you advocate”   I’ll say it again more clearly. The two kinds of rights are fundamentally intertwined. It is impossible to exercise a right to free speech, or even to vote, if one doesn’t have a roof over one’s head. Moreover, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs demonstrates that if you don’t have dinner, or a safe place to sleep, you are probably going to put your energy there, instead of attempting to sway others in society to support your party of choice. Even if government were smaller, and some were able to exercise negative rights to the extent that it improved society overall, the group with that potential is a small and relatively privileged one. The extent to which their ability to exercise negative rights detracts from many others positive rights, and consequently their secondary ability to exercise negative rights must be taken into account when assessing the overall well-being of the body politic. To be clear: It wasn’t a mistake to intertwine them, it is rhetorical acrobatics to attempt to separate them when in reality they are fundamentally related to each other.
  6. The federal government was constructed as the least powerful governmental entity – not the most”: The difficulty with this statement is that while it is true in the letter of the law, in order to forge some kind of multi-national identity it was necessary to expand both the conception and the practice of federalism. It is not an accident that the federal government expanded at precisely the same time civil rights were being expanded to many groups oppressed for centuries. Integration was the only possible answer when so many were so disenfranchised that coercion by the dominant group was impossible. As that hegemony broke bureaucratic institutions expanded to codify the balances of power that have emerged as a result.
  7. “let’s not try to skirt around it with more and more regulation that doesn’t fit at all with how our country was founded – on the individual, on natural rights, with government there to protect those rights – not to create new-fangled ones because we can’t imagine an individual doing something ‘the majority’ doesn’t like.” : I think this is part of the difficulty of this argument, and my earlier point about grounding it in the Constitution without reference to either the context of writing or the context or interpretation. It wasn’t founded completely on the individual. The rhetoric used to justify the case against Westminster was highly individualistic, but the reality was then and continues to be that the negotiation between the individual and the mechanisms of state was intended as an ongoing dialogue and to ignore that (and proclaim the  individual as the only possible locus of authority is highly problematic)

7)      I think my last point is related to the non-sequitur question I posed some time ago. I am genuinely interested in what the statement ‘we are all in this together’ means to you. My conception is that as citizens, fellow members of the body politic and travelers of this particular space in time, there are things that we have in common with our neighbors and there are common problems that are best faced together. I’m interested in what the statement means to you. To what extent does ‘together’ mean only those to whom we bind ourselves by choice? To what extent are we bound by forces beyond our control? To whom are we bound? What obligations do we owe others in society and on what are those obligations founded? I think the difference in our answers might point to the deeper causes of our disagreement and actually, strangely to possible solutions. (and after all- aren’t we all solutions oriented people? J)

As an aside- I will defend to the death your right to say whatever you want and I actually agree that those who seek to shut down free speech are problematic, but I would also draw your attention to the recent controversies over policy debate rules. There are many ways of shutting down free speech, or failing to recognize how the rights of others to speak can be undermined by historical power imbalances 🙂 Totally agree that attempts to redress that imbalance must be done very carefully, but I would say that the issue is not totally one-sided…

Looking forward to all of your free speaking in return!!

Political Debates 5: (She said)

The point isn’t that the collective necessarily makes decisions, it is a short-hand for the will of the majority within society. When everyone in society agrees there is no issue and the point is irrelevant, when the individual wants to do something that impacts no one but themselves, or there is enough ‘space’ (be it physical or metaphysical) for them to take that action unhindered again the point is irrelevant. I can swing my arm wherever the hell I want until it meets your nose.

The point at hand though and where it matters is when the action that an individual, or a minority, wants to take is somehow counter to the will of the majority (or the detriment of the whole), in situations in which the majority perceive that action to somehow infringe on them it becomes relevant because the tension between those two wants must somehow be decided.

I’m not sure I totally believe in ‘natural rights’ (although I do support the UDHR so I know I’m a bit of a hypocrite/ incoherent there). A huge part of our current national conflict is that individuals who want to take specific action counter to the majority or ‘collective good’ often question the basis upon which ‘collective good’ is founded, or those individuals doing the deciding.

I would posit that this breakdown in the social fabric (by which I mean the social ties that bind groups outwith political systems) eat away at the trust that previously allowed us to find common ground and exchange privileges for responsibilities (read let others do things sometimes that we might not totally like for the good of the overall functioning of society/ promise of reciprocation in future).

This is the intractable problem we find ourselves currently negotiating and indicates to me that the basis upon which we predicate governance (and further politics) is currently threatened. Until we have some solid foundation on which to negotiate we will continue going around in circles.
To be clear, my friend was actually complaining about special interest groups who are trying to infringe on the free-market but I totally agree with the point 🙂

Now we are getting somewhere interesting! I think you hit the nail on the head as to our fundamental disagreement. I don’t know that I would go as far as you seem to think I do, but I think that when it comes down to it I pull towards collective as answer and you pull towards individual. I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive, but I do think they exist in relationship and the level of orientation towards each waxes and wanes throughout history. Does one hunt for a rabbit or a deer when one cannot hunt for both? I choose deer and hope that others do too.
I think my difficulty with trusting the individual as the best unit to allow society to flourish is because of the tendency within society for power to remain largely inert and those in privilege to ignore their own privilege. I agree that the individual is the agent with the highest potential to create innovation and drive society forward. Looking at the US over the past 300 years demonstrates that unleashed the power of the individual is awesome (in the truest sense of the word, not the way I mostly use it day to day :))
I worry however at the collateral damage that is left in the wake of that in both human and, more recently, environmental harms. I also think that the individual as an agent is at times not well placed enough to answer some of the collective difficulties we face. I also worry that allowing individuals to pursue their own happiness or ends unfettered is a somewhat dangerous proposition. At some point, usually sooner rather than later, that happiness or goal is at the cost to others or to the whole. If the individual is completely unaware of, and uncaring for their context, the cost of their ‘success’ is problematic. I’m not even sure if I have an issue of taking away from another, as long as that is acknowledged.
I think this is where I come back around again too: ” Law and order, common defense, and enforcement of contracts”
These seem like simple and agreeable premises. But when accounting for historical reality and exigent power dynamics they become more complicated. How do you allow for all individuals to pursue the improvement of civil society (or their own situation) when it is patently clear that law benefits some and significantly harms others? How can we really claim we have any kind of functioning (let alone just) system of law when we incarcerate more people per capita than any other highly developed state, and we execute numbers similar to totalitarian dictatorships? Either people in the US are somehow inherently different from those in other countries, or something is flawed in our system of law and order. We could talk about Realist v Constructivist approaches to common defense but I think that is a tangent. All I’ll say is that again, defining and pursuing that as an end is a complex thing.

Contracts should be simpler to define/ talk about, but again, when levels of inequality are as high as they are I think it is difficult to claim that contracts can be fairly constructed between individuals. Coercion on paper is as destructive and violent as using a gun. (not a big fan, again, if you compare our levels of violence and gun deaths to every other developed nation it becomes clear that either we are inherently different in very bad ways or our governance is problematic about some things). Also, isn’t the narrative for many 2nd Amendment fans that it is necessary in case the government oversteps by making them do something terrible like have access to preventative care and basic medical provision and they must rise up in violent revolution to protect themselves? ;P

This is why I was making the argument/ posing the question as to equality in society. I agree that when individuals can negotiate within civil society, without need to get ‘authority’ involved everything functions more smoothly and easily. The difficulty is that for that negotiation to be possible and functional there is some modicum or basis of equality that must be supported such that they are truly negotiations and not coercion that looks pretty.

I could care less about income equality except that disparate access to resources seems to be the basis of much of the rest of inequality within society. (studying the history of the construction of mechanisms of disenfranchisement would seem that most of the construction was for the express purpose of a narrative allowing disproportionate access to resources and taking them away from groups within society) Allowing all individuals access to some base level of provision/ safety net allows them to exercise all the other rights and improves civil society in precisely the way you advocate.

I do think that political rights, in the absence of some social and economic rights are rendered somewhat meaningless as rights as exercise is impossible. Hence also my belief that our current primary goal must by deciding what we think that baseline must be, and the most efficient means to make sure the majority of people within society are at that minimum.

Looking at the expansion of government in the last 60 years, and the way that narrative has been told, especially from the far Right is informative. The second half of the 20th century was a time of increasing centralization. Some of that was afforded by technology and travel, some through media, and a lot of it through the increasing power and scope of the federal government. At the same time there were a number of supreme court cases that overruled long-held systems in more provincial areas of the country (to be clear, I am not using that word in any way pejoratively, simply that many of the communities involved tended to be more isolationist/ unconnected from major urban centers that are more ‘progressive’/ willing to change traditional societal structures).

Those decisions forced communities to more centralized social points of view, and often enabled branches of government to expand to protect previously marginalized groups within those communities. But it is important to note that there had been disenfranchised groups before, they were just unseen or unheard and many of those decisions afforded them the individual rights you celebrate but that had been reserved for those privileged within those groups.

(Read this excellent article about racial atavistic violence for more about what I mean- sorry about the popups, below the fold is the point, the stuff above is less )

To enable the idealized version of individualism that supports civil society and allows for dynamism that moves all of us forward there must be a container within which it functions. That is the entire body of the critique against Habermas’ Public Sphere. I love the premise, but can’t help but see merit in the critique that it is founded within praxis of privilege on a number of levels (white, wealthy, male, individualistic). The work of Nancy Fraser and others demonstrate that there are inequalities that undermine a singular functioning public sphere and while counterpublics function as a merited alternative, when the singular body politic breaks into too numerous counterpublics, with little reference between them, we begin to lose the thread of meaningful dialogue and interaction and our overall civil society begins to face intractable problems. This is exacerbated by media outlets that are individually pursuing capitalist ends and further distancing groups for sensationalism and profit.

All of this is to say, that without some baseline/ common context/ understanding/ goal we (like the universe post big-bang) drift farther and farther apart making more and more likely violent ruptures without diplomatic or non-violent means to overcome difference. The problem for my side is that bureaucracy has quite obvious limits (both in terms of actual functioning and in terms of human potential) but for the other side that the narrative sounds suspiciously like ‘we were ok with the rights of the collective when it disproportionately benefitted us but now that it is beginning to benefit the previously disenfranchised against us we would like a return to the individual as that is where the extent privilege continues to be housed and how our counterpublic will continue to be in charge of all the others because we do not trust that in a truly free market we would succeed.’

My own in- and out- group ambivalence

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To my friends, Willamette Heights neighbors, and loved ones,

I’m writing because I know no other way to express my sadness clearly and even if it’s only one voice, I would like to be heard.

I was dismayed about the potential loss to our neighborhood and community of a space that contains so many pieces of my childhood. I saw the threat to community, and to a rare and precious building block of what we cherish so dearly. I signed the petition, hoping that an intervention might change the direction of history, that the weight of our voices would be enough to help a young couple change their minds.
Immediately, I also wondered how directly we had been able to communicate with them. The more I researched the more I realized how similar they were to myself, and other children of our community. We inhabited the same space in time, even if not the same location. I’m sure I can relate to many of their experiences and memories, and I hoped that there was the possibility of reconciliation. That instead of being a threat, they could be welcomed into the community.

Our neighborhood has a history of accepting new people- waves of immigrants have come at different periods seeking similar things from the place they choose to live. I was the child of speculators, and remodelers, and yet I was welcome, as were my parents.

I understand that modifying the status quo is not the same as destroying and rebuilding, and I felt the same fear that the place of my memories would no longer be available. Many of you know how my childhood home no longer resembles the place I grew up, and the distress it has caused. But there is a new family there now, and they love the place as it is now as much as I loved it as it was before.

For me, Willamette Heights has always been about the people who live there. The architecture and the landscape are important, but what makes it a home is the community-the faces that grow and age but remain smiling and happy to see you. The houses have been the backdrop, but the real magic is in the events in those homes, and the continuity of connection year after year.

This is what I have found most distressing this week. For a place that claims community as a differentiator we have not been very community minded. Kevin and Darya are a young couple who had no way of knowing the expectations that came with the house they purchased, how could they? We don’t list neighborhood Easter Egg hunts on a spec sheet, and there is no written statute that says they must participate. I too would hope they would want that, but after their treatment this week I understand why that choice would be unthinkable.

People must choose to be a part of a community. A measured response from us might have engendered that choice. It might not. I freely admit that, but I also believe that either way it needed to be for them to decide.
Early on I hoped that they just didn’t realize how people felt, that a natural unawareness of this context led to choices that others were unhappy about. Optimistically I thought that perhaps they didn’t realize that community was on the table. That in return for modifying plans for their individual space they would be offered a precious alternative- a welcome to a community that I have been proud of. But watching as this story became increasingly sensational, as people tangentially related became involved and used our small drama as a soapbox for other issues I became both disheartened and ashamed.

I don’t think they came off in this story nearly as badly as we did. We had the opportunity to be transformative, to attempt some form of reconciliation or mediation. To truly practice the sense of community we espouse. We failed.

Many of you knew my mother. Many of you attended her memorial where we passed out cards of her most important philosophy ‘both/and’. I have seen many of the cards still in your homes years later. This was an opportunity for us to try to inhabit that and make choices allowing space for both perspectives. To keep thinking that we could find a solution that wouldn’t end with lawyers and media storms.

We vilified a young couple internationally, and for what? To save a house? To ‘protect’ our community? Did we really think they were so deaf, or so willful that they would choose to live in a space after knowing the neighbors felt so negatively? Did we think they would destroy the house for spite?

Many have been silent, many have said things that upon reflection they would take back or modify. We had the opportunity to have a truly civil discourse, and we missed. There are lots of reasons for that; emotions run high over community, history, in- and out- groups and, above all, money.

I don’t hope for any specific outcome from this- after all, it really has little to do with me and I trust that those people actually involved will come to some resolution, most likely with everyone walking away unhappy. I walk away sad, ashamed of how we treated people who could just as easily have become one of us, might have been if not for a number of accidents or coincidences that took us in different directions.

I needed to speak because it is important to have different voices in any functional community. Many have spoken for me this week, some I know and some I’ll never meet. I wanted to speak for myself and offer an alternative perspective.

Thank you for reading.